Tag Archives: teaching

Why it’s good to fall flat on your face as a teacher

I was fortunate enough to be taught to play rugby by Tosh Askew, one of the great youth coaches of the English game. At the time he was reaching the end of his playing career with Liverpool St Helens, and later went on to coach a highly successful England U19 side, laying the foundations for a generation of internationals who became a leading force on the world stage. Long before that he was standing in the rain shouting at groups of disorganised and reluctant schoolchildren, one of whom was me.

A reconstruction of good tackle form from BBC Sport. In my mind this is how it happened, but I’m sure that reality was very different.

Tosh was a teacher who didn’t need to rely on discipline or coercion to get his charges in line, even while out in the mud on a cold winter afternoon*. His physical presence alone was terrifying enough. Throughout my later years playing amateur club rugby I could still hear his voice in the back of my mind booming “Run straight Eichhorn!” It’s there to this day, over 30 years later. That wasn’t why he was such a great teacher though.

One session sticks in my mind during which we were being drilled in attacking and defensive line play. I can only have been 12 or 13 years old and at that moment I was on the defending side. Tosh, in his attempts to impose some order on the attacking group, had picked up the ball and was directing their movements. So it was that I found myself, a scrawny and bookish young lad, facing the prospect of a large, muscular man heading in my general direction. I did what any self-respecting rugby player would do in such circumstances. I went for his knees.

Moments later, to my great surprise, I found myself on the ground clutching a pair of legs, with Tosh also in the dirt, having off-loaded the ball on the way down. Play immediately stopped as all the other boys paused to take in the scene. He turned and looked at me.

“What are you doing Eichhorn?”

“Tackling the ball carrier Sir”, I responded meekly.

“Very good. Play on!”

No more was said about it and the session resumed. To this day I have no idea whether he went down deliberately to salvage my pride, or tripped over me, or was just trying to make sure that I didn’t get hurt in the process. I had no business bringing down a man of his size and strength.

This incident provided me with an immediate, if poorly-deserved, confidence boost. In the eyes of my peers it gave me a certain cachet: I had taken down Tosh! It even featured on my school report later that term. Why am I still dwelling on this minor incident, three decades on? Only because I’ve learnt a different lesson from it, which is the value as a teacher of allowing yourself to take a very public fall in front of your students.

Sometimes as teachers a student will step up and tell us that we’re wrong. In such circumstances the instinct is often to push back. You might be adamant that you’re correct, or else feel that your authority in class depends on maintaining your superior status. I recommend trying something different: let them take you down. Clearly, deliberately, so that everyone can see it.

It doesn’t happen to me often, or indeed as often as I would like, but sometimes a student will correct me on the identification of a species, or provide a counter-example that conflicts with one of my points. In the early days of teaching I probably would have reacted defensively, reflecting my own insecurity. Later on I’d have thought about teachable moments, maybe inviting the rest of the class to respond and seeing if I could turn it into a discussion. The latter approach is great if it works, but can also end up being a means of pitting students against one other, and places your initially brave student in the firing line. They will all think twice about speaking up again.

What I’ve learnt from that tackle, or rather from its aftermath, is that sometimes as a teacher you should allow yourself to be taken down. Any loss to your authority will be more than offset by the gains for your student. They can walk away buoyed with the knowledge that they got one over you, if only this once, and that however terrifying it might seem in the moment, they can actually do whatever it is that you’re trying to teach them, whether it’s a physical tackle or demonstrating some critical thinking. Their confidence is worth far more than your pride.

* I should probably make it clear at this point that although he was known as Tosh to the students, we would never have dared call him that to his face. It was ‘Sir’ or Mr Askew. If I ran into him again today then I’d still feel wary about using his first name.


Junk pedagogical research


Can I teach? I think so. Should I aspire to publish papers telling other people how to teach? Probably not. This is me showing students how to estimate tree height.

In my last job I was employed on a teaching-track position*. For many years this worked reasonably well for me. I enjoy teaching, I think I’m quite good at it, and I didn’t mind a slightly higher load as the price of not needing to satisfy arbitrary targets for research grant income or publication in high-impact journals. That’s not to say I stopped doing research, because obviously that didn’t happen, but I accepted that there was a trade-off between the two and that I was closer to one end of the spectrum. It still left me three clear months every summer to get out into the field and collect data.

Many UK universities developed teaching-track positions in response to the national research assessment exercise (the REF**) which incentivised them to concentrate resources in the hands of a smaller number of staff whilst ensuring that someone else got on with the unimportant business of running the university and the distraction of educating undergraduates. Such is the true meaning of research-led teaching.

A problem began to arise when those staff who had been shuffled into teaching-track positions applied for promotion. The conventional signifiers of academic success weren’t relevant; you could hardly expect them to bring in large grants, publish in top-tier journals or deliver keynotes at major conferences if they weren’t being given the time or support to do so.

Some head-scratching took place and alternative means were sought out to decide who was performing well. It’s hard enough to determine what quality teaching looks like at an institutional level***, and assessing individuals is correspondingly even more difficult.

The first thing to turn to is student evaluations. These largely measure how good a lecturer is at entertaining and pleasing their students, or how much the students enjoy the subject. Evidence suggests that evaluations are inversely proportional to the amount that students learn, as well as being biased against women and protected minorities. In short they’re not just the wrong measure, they’re actively regressive in their effects. Not that this stops many universities using them of course.

What else is there? Well, being academics, the natural form of output to aim for is publications. It’s the only currency some academics understand. Not scientific research papers, of course, because teaching staff aren’t supposed to be active researchers. So instead the expectation became that they would publish papers based on pedagogical research****. This sounds, on the face of it, quite sensible, which is why many universities went down that route. But there are three major problems.

1. Pedagogical research isn’t easy. There are whole fields of study, often based in departments of psychology, who have developed approaches and standards to ensure that work is of appropriate quality. Expecting an academic with a background in biochemistry or condensed matter physics to publish in a competitive journal of pedagogical research without the necessary training is unreasonable. Moreover, it’s an implicit insult to those colleagues for whom such work is their main focus. Demanding that all teachers should publish pedagogical research implies that anyone can do it. They can’t.

2. Very few academics follow pedagogical research. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t. Most academics teach and are genuinely interested in doing so as effectively as possible. But the simple truth is that it’s hard enough to keep track of the literature in our areas of research specialism. Not many can make time to add another, usually unrelated field to their reading list. I consider myself more engaged than most and even I encounter relevant studies only through social media or articles for a general readership.

3. A lot of pedagogical research is junk. Please don’t think I’m talking about the excellent, specialist work done by expert researchers into effective education practice. There is great work out there in internationally respected journals. I’m talking about the many unlisted, low-quality journals that have proliferated over recent years, and which give education research a bad name. Even if they contain some peer review process, many are effectively pay-to-publish, and some are actively predatory. I won’t name any here because that’s just asking for abusive e-mails.

Why to these weak journals exist? Well, we have created an incentive structure in which a class of academics needs to publish something — anything — in order to gain recognition and progress in their careers. A practice which we would frown upon in ‘normal’ research is actively encouraged by many of the world’s top universities. Junk journals and even junk conferences proliferate as a way to satisfy universities’ own internal contradictions.

What’s the alternative? I have three suggestions:

1. Stop imposing an expectation based on research onto educators. If research and teaching are to be separated (a trend I disagree with anyway) then they can’t continue to be judged by the same metrics. Incentivising publications for their own sake helps no-one. Some educators will of course want to carry out their own independent studies, and this should be encouraged and respected, but it isn’t the right approach for everyone.

2. Put some effort into finding out whether teachers are good at their job. This means peer assessments of teaching, student performance and effective innovation. All this is difficult and time-consuming but if we want to recognise good teachers then we need to take the time to do it properly. Proxy measures are no substitute. Whether someone can write a paper about teaching doesn’t imply that they can teach.

3. Support serious pedagogical researchers. If you’re based in a large university then there’s almost certainly a group of specialist researchers already there. How much have you heard about their work? Have you collaborated with them? Universities have native expertise which could be used to improve teaching practice, usually much more efficiently than forcing non-specialists to jump through hoops. If the objective is genuinely to improve teaching standards then ask the people who know how to do it.

If there’s one thing that shows how evaluations of teaching aren’t working or taken seriously it’s that universities don’t make high-level appointments based on teaching. Prestige chairs exist to hire big-hitters in research based on their international profile, grant income and publication record. When was the last time you heard of a university recruiting a senior professor because they were great at teaching? Tell me once you’ve stopped laughing.



* This is now relatively common among universities in Europe and North America. The basic principle is that some staff are given workloads that allow them to carry out research, whilst others are given heavier teaching and administrative loads but the expectations for their research income and outputs are correspondingly reduced.

** If you don’t know about the Research Evaluation Framework and how it has poisoned academic life in the UK then don’t ask. Reactions from those involved may vary from gentle sobs to inchoate screaming.

*** Which gave rise to the Teaching Evaluation Framework, or TEF, and yet more anguish for UK academics. Because the obvious way to deal with the distorting effect of one ranking system is to create another. Surely that’s enough assessment of universities based on flawed data? No, of course not, because there’s also the Knowledge Evaluation Framework (KEF) coming up. I’m not even joking.

**** Oddly textbooks often don’t count. No, I can’t explain this. But I was told that publishing a textbook didn’t count as scholarship in education.

Class exercises for teaching conservation biology

I’m in the midst of writing a new module in Conservation Biology. It’s quite exciting (and daunting) to start a course with an entirely blank slate. Finding material for the lectures is no problem because I’m following a standard textbook and there’s never a shortage of examples in the literature. It’s always more difficult to come up with class exercises though. These are crucial to engage students with the subject matter and get them to critically evaluate different positions, including their own.

This is the first time I’ve taught a whole module on the subject, but luckily there are many others who have trodden the same path before me, so I put out a call for ideas on Twitter:

As expected, this provoked an avalanche of brilliant ideas, all classroom-tested and ready to roll out. Rather than hoard them all, here’s a summary of the suggestions, several of which I’m already planning to deploy.

Unsurprisingly there are already resources out there, so before developing something on your own take a look at the online collections provided by @sesync, @CaseStudEnv, @BIOINTERACTIVE, @CBC_AMNH, National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, CISV International (including one on deforestation in DR Congo), HNV Link on agroecosystems, as well as the discussion questions in many textbooks. Below are just the ones that were suggested directly.

A great idea which I had already stolen from @juliapgjones is to launch into the course by getting the students to take the Future of Conservation survey:

This is a great way to get students to explore their own attitudes and preconceptions at the outset, which provides a foundation for them to reflect on the material and their responses to it. There’s even a GO-FOX tool which allows you to carry out bespoke surveys for closed groups, allowing students to compare their opinions to the rest of the class. Even if you’re an experienced conservation practitioner I recommend you to do the test; it’s very revealing.

One of the oldest arguments in conservation biology is the SLOSS debate over reserve design (Single Large Or Several Small). I admit to being a little weary of this one based on the simple observation that such abstract, idealised concepts almost never play out in reality. Nevertheless, as an exercise in discussing where our priorities should lie, this is a nice self-contained topic to work on. For example, students could be given a hypothetical landscape and invited to discuss how to distribute a limited reserve area within it. @LauraEllenDee has a jigsaw exercise based on her recent paper which covers this material nicely.

A related issue, and perhaps closer to what happens on the ground, is to look at the tension between land sharing and sparing:

Biodiversity trade-offs are another great opportunity to turn into a game. Having known @jlsnaddon for some time, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s found a way to transform this simple idea into something that looks professionally designed:

Another fun game comes from this set of notes for a class on the Tragedy of the Commons, which @CarlaWildlife has adapted using Skittles. She also has more suggestions:

One way to take conservation strategy away from abstract considerations is to use real-world case studies. Students can be invited to choose sites worldwide, download species lists, calculate EDGE scores or other biodiversity metrics, and identify possible actions or priorities in either a poster or talk. It sounds as though there’s an interesting publication coming up which does exactly this:

A number of people recommended roleplay exercises as a great way to explore the different sides of complex debates in conservation. Students often get so involved in the discussion that this becomes quite heated. Not unlike the real world. A great one to whet the appetite is the issue of feral cats, with some good evidence of impacts on piping plovers. The harvesting of sea turtle eggs is another. You could raise the stakes by turning it into a shark tank dynamic (which I think is the same as a balloon debate). You can even get a good argument out of students by looking out of the window and asking about the differences in conservation value between a lawn and an unmanaged patch.

Another topic with a well-established body of conservation theory is Population Viability Analysis, and here again students can try out the calculations for themselves (I imagine this is often quite sobering):

Debates are also an important tool. For example:

This sounds like a great question. I’m wary of setting quite so much compulsory reading, although Feral and Rambunctious Garden sound very provocative and I should probably read them myself.

Other common tools are online quizzes followed by class discussion (Mentimeter is a recommended tool), showing or making students create videos, or getting them to develop their own case studies which they can present back to the class:

Finally, I’m intrigued by a suggestion from @Tarsiussallius of bringing in some Citizen Science element; I’ll have to think more about how to achieve that (and would love to hear from anyone who has done this).

This post is a work in progress and I’d welcome any other suggestions or feedback based on class experience. If you have a great exercise (or know of one) then why not nominate it for the Case Studies in the Environment Prize? Fame, glory and $2000 could be yours.


Thanks for input on this post (in order of their replies in the original thread) to @ecoevoenviro, @Jungle_Lou, @bonebraking, @Honor_Prentice, @juliapgjones, @bangorherps, @EntoProf, @SaraScanga, @LauraEllenDee, @jlsnaddon, @ja_tobias, @LaMontagneLab, @Zen_of_Science, @mceuen_amy, @Tarsiussallius, @KampJohannes, @OrnithoAle, @TraciInFinland, @_GeorgeHolmes, @josephjbailey, @Dr_Stoat, @KStackWhitney, @CaseStudEnv, @katiemattaini, @megcevans, @CarlaWildlife, @katzyna, @Rosie_Baillie_, @Xim_Neri, @yitarn. If you’re looking for an inspiring set of conservation educators on Twitter then follow all of them.



Remembering rhinos


Is this how we will remember the rhinos? Will it be any better than Dürer’s rhinocerus?

This autumn I will be teaching a new module in Conservation Biology. There’s a lecture I’m already writing in my head, though I dread the day that it finally happens because it comes with a personal dimension. I must be among a small number of living witnesses to two species which are now on the verge of extinction.

This week we learnt that Tam, the last male Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, has died. I met Tam while working in Borneo many years ago. My home was close to an institute that was attempting to breed rhinos and I would regularly walk past the enclosure hosting these recalcitrant giants on my way into the forest.

The story of the rhinos of Sabah is tied up with political disagreements, human tragedy* and some extremely bad luck. For many years it was asserted that there were 30 left in the wild, despite a persistent absence of evidence. Now we have to admit that they are on their way out. And no, I don’t have much hope for expensive lab-based interventions. If the habitat they lived in has gone, along with the accumulated knowledge and experience that allowed herds to move and forage through the landscape, then the species can only return as a curio. Limited conservation funding is better directed elsewhere.

By coincidence I also met one of the last of the northern white rhinos while teaching on a field course in Kenya 15 years ago. Not the very last, though this hardly matters, because their trajectory was already dismal. It lumbered peaceably around a bush and came directly towards me, staring directly down the barrel of my camera lens. Sadly I have no evidence of this because the film was subsequently ruined**, but I don’t need the photograph. The moment is seared in my memory for life.

In both cases I encountered the rhinos in sad circumstances. Tam was so domesticated by human contact that he was more interested in having a belly rub than in demonstrating his physical strength. He certainly wasn’t much interested in sex with other rhinos, which was the preoccupation of his keepers. The northern white rhino I met was accompanied at all times by a pair of armed guards. In neither case could I claim to have seen the species in its full glory. They were docile, amiable memories of rhinos.

These are the only rhinos I have seen outside zoos, although their absence is tangible in the increasing abundance of Euphorbia candelabrum in African savannahs, a generally unpalatable species but one which rhinos formerly consumed. Losing such a major herbivore inevitably has impacts on plant communities as well. If you know where to look then there is a rhino-shaped hole.

Yet my world is full of rhinos at the moment. My son plays with a plush cuddly rhino, has a soft blanket with a rhino print, wears a t-shirt covered with cartoon rhinos. The same could be said of dinosaurs, and what rhinos share in common is that they are large, charismatic megafauna which he will probably never see in the wild.

Yes, I know that there are positive stories to tell in rhino conservation. Global rhino numbers across all five species are close to 30,000, mainly due to successful protection of the southern white rhino in South Africa, but still the two Asian species hover on the brink, and a new poaching epidemic threatens recent gains.

And so, later this year, I will stand in front of a classroom of students and bear witness to the losses of my generation. We knew this was happening, we watched it happen, we tried to raise the alarm but our voices were not enough. The pressure is now building through movements like Extinction Rebellion and the realisation that this is an emergency. I hope that the tide is turning. Much remains to be saved. But even if we succeed this time, one day we will be forced to look back and see how much we have lost, plants and animals alike. I hope that I never have to describe a rhino.


Albrecht Dürer‘s famous 1515 print of a rhinocerus. It was drawn based on a written description of a rhino in Lisbon; Dürer himself never saw one. This fantastical image of a rhino nevertheless became wildly popular and shaped European imaginations of what a rhino looked like for centuries thereafter. Will our grandchildren know any better?


* My memories of the Sumatran rhino will also be tinged with sadness in recollection of the brilliant Dr Annelisa Kilbourn, a wildlife vet who died tragically in a plane crash in Gabon in 2002. Best known for her brave work demonstrating the link between gorillas and ebola, the rhino project was another large gap she left behind.

** At this point I might need to explain to the students that cameras used to contain film, before the arrival of digital mechanisms of capturing and storing images. This will only make me sound like even more of a dinosaur.

Trumpets are meant for blowing


The Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band perform at the Boston women’s march, as captured in an excellent article by Amelie Mason which shows exactly how a trumpet can be more than just a musical instrument.

A man walks up to a brass band, and asks one of the musicians whether he can buy her trumpet. Confused by the request, the musician replies that she wasn’t planning to sell the instrument, but could be persuaded for the right price. She asks why the man is so keen on buying her trumpet. Is he perhaps a musician himself? “Oh no,” the man responds. “I only want it for the brass.”

I’d like to use this analogy to think about the value of a university education. The story is adapted from Bertolt Brecht’s Messingkauf dialogues, a series of observations and parables on theatrical theory that he began in 1938 but never finished*. Brecht was making a point about the differing criteria of value that might be held by an artist and their audience.

Right now is a good time to have this conversation, just as undergraduate students are about to find out their exam results. Soon our graduates will be launched into the job market and have to sell their capabilities to potential employers. To employ a metaphor that Brecht didn’t intend, they will have to blow their own trumpets. This does however depend upon them still having trumpets and knowing how to use them.

Throughout his career, Brecht was obsessed with the idea of how theatre could be used as a means of instruction. Sometimes this was an explicit aim, for example in his Lehrstücke, or learning plays. Other times it was intended to be subliminal, distracting the audience while ensuring that their subconcious absorbed the intended message**.

The challenge was that audiences don’t go to the theatre to learn something. They are there to be entertained, to relax, to see what all the fuss in the newspapers is about, to associate themselves with a political faction, or as a signifier of their intellectual credentials. Over dinner or in the workplace they could then tell friends and colleagues “Oh yes, I went to see that Brecht play the other night,” and offer some personal observations.

Surely, you might think, the problem for an academic isn’t the same as for a playwright or our trumpeter. The audience have come to university to learn. We perform in some way, whether that’s through lecturing, tutorials or other pedagogical forms. While we try to make our lectures engaging and entertaining, the performative aspects are very much secondary. The message is the important element; what we want to say is what the students want to hear.

Except that it isn’t. In a university, teaching is always taking place. Students are there because, by and large, they want to learn the material and pass their exams. This is not always for the intrinsic value of knowledge, although having some passion for the discipline certainly helps. Rather they need evidence that they have moved some material. They absorb, recite, then obtain a reward for having done so. For a brief period they have been the bearers of information which can be returned and assessed.

This is of course a cynical viewpoint and not meant as an insult to the many committed, dedicated students who care deeply about the subjects they study. But the commodification of higher education encourages them to think as customers. Teaching is simply part of the compact: we deliver information, they demonstrate that it was received, we get paid.

And how much brass can you get for a degree? Helpfully, the Institute for Fiscal Studies have produced a report where you can find out exactly how much previous graduates have benefitted from sitting a particular subject at a given university. This is being circulated as a tool to help students make an informed decision on how best to spend the loans they receive in order to pay for their tuition. It gets worse though; the UK government is determined that this be used as a measure of value-for-money, and even as a stand-in for teaching quality. These are evaluations based on brass, not music.

We understand the sinking feeling of the trumpeter every time a student asks us what they need to know to pass the exam, how to get a first in our module, or whether the assigned reading is compulsory. We feel it when our students select modules based on the previous cohort’s grades, whether the lecturer is perceived as a ‘hard’ marker, or if the assessment is of their preferred type (exams or coursework). We see it when the conversation about supporting a student begins not with “I want to understand this subject more deeply” but “I need to get a 2i”***. I don’t blame them for taking this approach; they have been led to believe that this is the purpose of a university education.

When academics teach material, we do it not for the necessity of saying something (although lecturers, like musicians, still need to get paid). We want our audience to feel something, to respond to the narratives we weave, and to act accordingly. When we fail to move them to value the story behind the information, something has gone wrong: with our own abilities as teachers, with a system that encourages purely functional attitudes towards learning, with the willingness of the audience to see beyond the original reason they might have turned up.

A university education is more than just a certificate that can be leveraged to obtain a better salaried job. If that’s all a graduate does with their degree then they are in the same place as our fictional trumpet buyer. Perhaps that’s all they wanted all along, which is itself a shame. But that’s not what got me into doing this job. I’m here for the music.


* I have of course modified it for didactic reasons, but that’s surely just being a good Brecht disciple. The original is Dialoge aus dem Messingkauf, and Messingkauf can be translated as ‘buying brass’.

** To a modern audience these efforts can seem forced or inappropriate, but at a time when the arts were being deployed by fascists for political indoctrination it was essential that the left fought back with its own tools. In universities we’re not playing for the same stakes.

*** For non-UK readers, a 2i (or ‘two-one’) is an upper second-class degree. In most universities it represents an average mark of around 60%, and shows that the student has learnt enough to have a basic understanding of the subject. A number of graduate employers stipulate this as a minimum requirement. It’s roughly equivalent to a 3.0 GPA in the North American system.

How representative of ecology are the top 100 papers?

The publication in Nature Ecology & Evolution of the 100 most important papers in ecology has led, inevitably, to a fierce debate. Several rapid responses are already in review. The main bone of contention has been that not only were the first authors of 98% of the papers male, but the only two papers written by women were relegated to the very bottom of the list. In a generous reading this reflects implicit biases at every stage of their compilation, rather than any malign intent on the part of the authors*, but I’m sure they’ve received plenty of feedback on this oversight.

Pretty soon after it came out, Terry McGlynn on Twitter asked:

If you want a guide to all the essential papers that didn’t make the list, and happen to have been written by women, this thread is a good place to start. I’m not going to fan the flames any further here, but it’s important that this glaring omission remains the headline response. Instead I’m going to respond to another observation:

This pricked up my senses, given that I am also an undergraduate textbook author. In writing the Natural Systems book (published 2016) I made a deliberate attempt to not cite the same things as everyone else, and to emphasise promising directions for the future of the field of ecology. That made me wonder: how many of the 100 most important papers in ecology did I manage to cite? Note that I had no input into the Nature Ecology & Evolution article, and the book only includes references up to the end of 2014, so these form entirely independent samples. Without formally counting, I estimate that I’ve read around 80% of the top 100 papers, and I’m aware of almost all of them.

How many? Only 17/100 papers.** That raw figure disguises some interesting discontinuities within the list. Of the top ten I actually cited six, and a total of nine from the top twenty. This indicates a reasonable amount of agreement on the most important sources. But of the bottom 80 I only managed another eight (10%). This comes from a total of over 800 sources cited in the book.

Why did I cite them? The main reasons:

  • Posing an important question we have since spent a long time trying to answer (Hutchinson 1957, 1959, 1966, Janzen 1967).
  • Defining a new idea which remains relevant (Grinnell 1917, Gleason 1926, Janzen 1970, Connell 1978).
  • Creating a framework which has been elaborated since (MacArthur 1955, MacArthur & Wilson 1963, Tilman 1994, May 1972, Chesson 2000, Leibold et al. 2004, Brown 2004).
  • Reviewing the evidence for an important principle (Tilman 1996).
  • The first empirical demonstration of an important idea (Tilman 1977).

In many cases I have cited the same authors from the top 100 multiple times, but not necessarily for the original or classic piece of work; often it’s a later review or synthesis. This is because I deliberately chose citations that would be most helpful for students or other readers, not always on the basis of precedence.

The aim of this post is not to argue in any way that the authors of the paper were wrong; this is only a reflection of my personal opinion of what matters in the field. Theirs was generated through the insights of 147 journal editors and a panel of 368 scientists from across the discipline, and is therefore a much more genuine representation of what opinion-makers within the field of ecology believe (although there are better ways to conduct such an exercise). Mine is only one voice and certainly not the authoritative one.***

Writing a textbook is something like curating an exhibition at a museum or art gallery. It bestows on the author the responsibility of deciding which pieces to show in order to tell a particular story. Of necessity this becomes a very personal perspective. I’m amused to find that my view of ecology overlaps by only 17% with the leaders in my field.**** That doesn’t make either of us right or wrong, only that we must be looking in very different directions.

As for their aim of creating an essential reading list for post-graduates or those wishing to learn the foundations of the field, here I profoundly disagree. The best way to learn about current practice in ecology is to start with a good core textbook (and there are lots more out there), read recent synthetic reviews, or pick over the introductions of papers in the major journals. In the same way that you don’t need to read Darwin to understand evolutionary theory, or Wallace to understand biogeography, it’s not strictly necessary to read Grinnell, Clements or Gause to get to grips with modern ecology. Fun if you have the time but most people have more important things to do.

One final comment: three of the top ten papers in ecology were written by one man, G. E. Hutchinson. There is no doubt that his work was highly influential, and I agree that these are important papers to read. What I find most interesting though is that all of them are essentially opinion pieces that frame a general research question, but go little further than that. None of them would get published in a modern ecological journal.

Where would you find similar pieces of writing today? On a blog.


UPDATE: Dr Kelly Sierra is soliciting suggestions for a more inclusive list. Whether or not you feel that such lists have any inherent value, if we’re going to make them then they should at least represent the full diversity of our scientific community.

* In the comments below, Jeremy Fox points out that this isn’t very well worded, and could be read as a suggestion that I think there was some malign intent. So, to be absolutely clear, I am not suggesting that the authors made a deliberate choice to exclude or devalue papers written by women. If anything this was a sin of omission, not of commission, and we all need to learn from it rather than attribute blame to individuals.

** As an aside, 16 of the 17 were sole-authored papers. Only Leibold et al. (2004), which defined the metacommunity concept, had more than one author.

*** Nor do I think it’s healthy for there to be a voice of authority in ecology, or any other academic field. We make progress through testing every argument or piece of evidence, not by accepting anyone’s word, however senior or trustworthy. If there were an authority figure you can almost guarantee that I would disagree with them.

**** I’m more in line with the recent attempt to define the 100 most important concepts in ecology, although a little peeved that so many people dismissed Allee effects given my recent work on them.

The four types of plants

Botany has an image problem. Part of the issue is that it’s perceived as possessing arcane and esoteric language, making it impenetrable to outsiders. There is some justification in this; an average reader would need a large glossary to hand in order to tackle the more recondite specialist floras. That said, for readers in the UK, there are excellent and accessible floras that anyone can use, which, combined with a guide to plant families should be enough to set anyone on the right path.

As Kew Gardens’ recent State of the World’s Plants report attests, there are almost 400,000 known plant species, a number which is only set to increase. This is daunting complexity. There have therefore been multiple attempts to simplify the diversity of plants into a set of categories, based on their taxonomy, appearance or function, to help break down the problem into manageable chunks.

One of the most influential attempts to do this was by the great Danish botanist Christen Raunkiær, a founding figure in plant ecology, who recognised a series of plant life forms:



Plant life forms as determined by Raunkiaer (1907). Plant parts are distinguished between those which are ephemeral or temporary (thin lines) and those which persist through unfavourable seasons such as cold winters (dark lines). Names are given in the text.

These sketches appear to be straightforward divisions. One could easily map them onto common vernacular terms: tree, shrub, vine and so forth. Alas, would that it were so easy. The numbers on the above figure actually correspond to another set of impenetrable terms: (1) phanerophyte; (2–3) chamaephytes; (4) hemicryptophyte; (5–9) cryptophytes which include (5–6) geophytes, (7) helophytes and (8–9) hydrophytes. Many of these are subdivided further, and some others are not even shown in this figure  (therophytes, aerophytes and epiphytes).

If you know a little Greek then all these names have sensible, intuitive meanings. If you don’t know any Greek — and let’s be honest, most people don’t — then this is a barrier.

That’s why, when I start my undergraduate botany classes, I make it much, much simpler. To begin with, there are only four types of plants, defined by function. These are:

  1. Plants you can eat
  2. Plants you can kill people with
  3. Plants you can use to get high
  4. The rest

Learn the first three, and the rest will come naturally. Below are some examples. One species you can eat (Eruca sativa, otherwise known as wild rocket or arugula), one you can kill people with (Aconitum napellus, perhaps the most poisonous plant in the northern hemisphere), and one you can smoke (Leonitis leonurus, a South African plant known as wild dagga).

I can spin a yarn around each of these species that leads on to important botanical understanding. The first time I pick up a clump of Eruca sativa and pass it round for students to taste, many are reluctant. A few will take a cautious bite then spit it out and declare it to be inedible. Only when you tell them that it’s rocket and a constituent of most salads do they give it a fair try. Within Europe, anything with that type of flower — four petals in the shape of a cross, white or yellow — is edible.* They are the characters identifying the Brassicaceae, an important plant family. One down already!

Poisons tick off a wide range of families, and are associated with great stories. Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, is seldom found growing wild in the UK. Most of its known sites are on the grounds of former nunneries. Why would nuns need poison? The answer is that is had another unpleasant traditional role: as an abortificant. In carefully-controlled low doses it was enough to provoke abortions, though the experience must have been horrendous, not to mention dangerous. Still, for the nuns, it was better to cover up indiscretions than risk scandal.

Psychoactive plants are harder to come by in Europe, but when you find one they generate disproportionate interest among students. Leonitis leonurus is an innocuous-looking garden shrub. If you want something to smoke, select the developing flower buds or, if none are available, the youngest leaves, because this is where the interesting chemicals are concentrated (which might remind you of another useful plant). It has this in common with many other plants, such as the tannins in tea leaves, because those chemicals we enjoy for their neurological effects are actually deterrent toxins aimed at browsing insects. They concentrate in the tissues that are most valuable to the plants. Come for the drugs, stay for the important lesson on plant defensive investment strategies.

Once you make the stories of plants personal, botany becomes more accessible, and more interesting. All it takes to engage a group of sceptical zoology undergraduates is to show them that first step. The rest can take a lifetime.

*  There are a few exceptions, like Potentilla erecta (tomentil; actually Rosaceae), or cases where coloured sepals can confuse the unwary botanist (e.g. the golden saxifrages, Chrysosplenium spp.). These aren’t toxic but do taste terrible, so you’d soon spit them out, thereby learning another botanical lesson.

All images taken from Wikimedia Commons

Field notes from Uganda 8: Farewell, potatoes

It’s the end of the field course here in Kibale and I’m now looking forward to getting home. The day my plane lands there’s a wedding to attend, but even before that there are many things I’ve missed — my wife, hot running water, reliable electricity, my record collection, and the ability to walk in the forest without fear of being trampled by elephants.

On the very last night here I went out with a small group to look for bush babies. We were rapidly successful, scanning trees with our torches and looking for the orange reflections of their large eyes amongst the foliage. I was walking slightly ahead, looking for the next one, when from the vegetation at the side of the road, moving as silently as an iceberg, a large bull elephant emerged right in front of us. What are the chances. It made it clear that we were not welcome, but luckily wasn’t interested in causing us any further trouble.

The elephants will not be missed. There are, however, a number of things that I will remember fondly. In no particular order:

1. The potatoes. I’m not joking. The potatoes here in Uganda are the best I’ve tasted in my entire life, especially when roasted. I could eat them continuously. I’ve never had potatoes like them before and all others will pale in comparison. The only other foodstuff worthy of note are the doughnuts of death, which occasionally appear at afternoon tea — small blobs of hard, salty deep-fried dough. They’re basically vegetarian pork scratchings and they’re incredible, even though each one palpably reduces your life expectancy.

2. The students. Normally at the end of a field course I watch the tearful parting of the participants with absolute equanimity. It’s not that I’m glad to get rid of them so much as relieved at the lifting of responsibility and the peculiar social tension that results from the teacher-student relationship. On a TBA course, however, it’s completely different. All the students are mature post-graduates, all highly talented and motivated. It also helps that we’re not assessing them, which allows us to completely separate the important roles of teaching and support from any academic judgement. This dissolves one of the major social barriers, and not coincidentally, they learn a lot more as a result.

3. Primates. To quote Liza Comita, a fellow forest ecologist, if you’re going to do dull and repetitive fieldwork, do it somewhere with monkeys. I’ve never been anywhere with such a fantastic abundance and diversity.

4. This view in the morning:


One could easily get used to opening a front door to this view.

Some things, however, I won’t miss at all.

1. Ironing underpants and socks. This isn’t for aesthetic reasons, but to kill the eggs of the mango fly, which are often laid on wet clothes when they’re hung out to dry. On contact with skin the eggs hatch and the larvae burrow under the skin causing painful, infected swellings. One of the other teachers has pulled almost 40 larvae out following an unwise excursion to the swamp where they swarm in abundance. This has been enough of a warning to make everyone a little paranoid.

2. Finding an internet connection. In the Dark Ages, monks travelled the world looking for the exact location where the firmament was thinnest and their prayers would ascend most readily to heaven. High, desolate places were particularly favoured for establishment of holy sites. The same principle applies to obtaining a mobile signal in Uganda. I am sending this while sat on a pile of rocks on the hill above the field station. Returning to a place with reliable wireless will be a delight.


On this occasion, the internet beam fell around the septic tank

3. Elephant terror. Once you’ve had a bad experience with the elephants, every noise in the forest becomes a potential elephant. Branches swaying in the wind, an animal running away in the undergrowth, a hornbill squaking as it lands clumsily in the canopy. All these make me jump and scan for the nearest escape route. In most forests I’m confident that, as a human being, I’m pretty much the most dangerous animal around. Everything else tends to run away. Here I’m definitely not. It’s a new experience for me to be scared in the forest and it’s not one I’ve enjoyed.

4. This view in the morning:


The baboons hold their morning conference to plot the day’s mayhem.

Actually, the baboons aren’t too much of an issue, so long as you ensure that your doors and windows are locked whenever you’re not around. They’re certainly not aggressive, other than to each other. In a place with limited electricity and internet, an no TV, they provide a permanent soap opera on your doorstep. The researchers who study them have almost come to love them. I doubt I’ll ever get that far but they at least provide good entertainment. It still baffles me though that a standard greeting among male baboons is for one to grab the other’s testicles. It’s one way to get their attention I suppose.

Field notes from Uganda 3: How do you solve a problem like savannah?


Savannah in Queen Elizabeth National Park

We’ve just returned from a four-day trip to Queen Elizabeth National Park, one of Uganda’s flagship tourist destinations. It’s an extensive tract of savannah where one can readily see buffalo, elephants, hippos, and, if you’re lucky, lions or leopards.

What you won’t see are giraffes or zebra. Put aside for now that these glaring omissions are the result of staggering levels of poaching during the civil war. Their continued absence is a deliberate policy on the part of Uganda Wildlife Authority, who maintain the parks such that no single site contains the full complement of large animals. The rationale is that tourists will then travel around more and spread their largesse across the country. The obvious question is why would a wildlife tourist choose to come to Uganda when they could go on safari in Kenya or Tanzania and see all the big game in the same place?


My curtains in QENP, which are the only place in the park to find giraffes and zebra.

Whatever one makes of this policy, it strikes at the heart of one of the most contentious debates in African conservation — how should savannahs be managed? Should it be to maximise the revenue from tourists, the enjoyment of local visitors, to minimise conflict with communities in and around the park, or to create systems as close to ‘natural’ as possible, whatever that is assumed to mean?

The problem is threefold. Firstly, there are a complex set of processes which act to create and maintain savannahs. While landscapes composed of scattered trees surrounded by grass form spontaneously in semi-arid areas with a pronounced dry season, there are large parts of the world where several types of vegetation are possible. They could turn into grasslands, savannahs, scrub or even closed-canopy dry forest. Multiple outcomes are possible.

Which one is found at any given site depends not solely on the climate but on the densities of large herbivores and the fire regime. Herds of species such as buffalo favour grasses, which are tolerant of grazing, and prevent woody seedlings from establishing. Larger animals like elephants feed on and break up woody vegetation. Grasses are also highly tolerant of fire, whereas tree seedlings are vulnerable, which means that regular fires hold back the trees and maintain open areas.


Fires keep trees in check and promote grasses.

The twofold problem in the modern era is a dramatic reduction of the densities of large herbivores, and increased control of burning. This has led to shrub encroachment, widely believed to be a management problem. But this points towards the second issue, which is that there is no clear baseline to work towards.

Photographic records from a century ago show clearly that woody vegetation has expanded at the expense of open grasslands. Yet even when these photos were taken, they represented the state of savannah systems following several centuries of colonial game hunting and land management. This built on thousands of years of occupation by hunter-gatherers and native herdsmen, who were at the time being driven from the land. A general shortage of reliable palynological evidence (long-term pollen records) only further confounds the issue. We have no accurate means of determining what savannahs ‘should’ look like, or what that even means. Change is constant, from the scale of seasons to alterations in the balance between woody plants and grasses throughout the ice ages.

Savannahs are really a dynamic mosaic in which the shifting fortunes of trees and grasses are determined by changes in the climate, the populations of large animals, and the frequency of fire. The concept of ‘climax’ vegetation is of no use here. In a wet tropical rain forest it’s clear what state the system will default to once left alone. In a savannah we can only wait and see, or manage for what we prefer.

The final problem is that two other notable and crucial species are missing from these savannahs. The first is a tragic indictment of the greed and stupidity of humans — rhinos. The landscape in QENP is dominated by large Euphorbia candelabrum, which are practically inedible to all the local species, but are greatly favoured by rhinos. How different would this park look if the rhinos returned? Right now it’s a rhino buffet. If only we could guarantee their safety, and an end to their pointless exploitation for the sake of a medical myth, the landscape would appear very different.


These large Euphorbia are delicious for rhinos, but ignored by everything else (elephant for scale). Would they be so abundant if rhinos were still here to eat them?

The last species that’s missing is easily forgotten because no-one realises that they’re threatened. It’s a keystone species, crucial as an ecosystem engineer, seed disperser and top predator. It’s also a charismatic primate averaging 60 kg in size, with fascinating behaviour and cascading impacts across savannah ecosystems. Does this ring any bells?

Modern humans evolved in Africa around 150 000 years ago from an ancestor which was also a savannah ape. For thousands of years they have managed these landscapes, particularly through fire. Burning was a tool not only to drive out game but to maintain open areas where hunting was easier and grassy plains where prey were abundant. More recently domesticated cattle spread across Africa, and all this long before the depredations of the modern era. These days we tend to assert that the only way to protect natural systems is to exclude people. But what if people are part of the system? Would it be reasonable to reintroduce the rhino but not the hunter-gatherer?

Field Notes from Uganda 2: An unwanted frog and a gift from the baboons

Dr Rose Badaza, a pteridophyte taxonomist, was leading a group of students to learn basic fern identification. Despite her short stature she’s a formidable personality with an air of command.

It’s often difficult to engage students in plants when their primary interest is animals; they’re so easily distracted. At one point one of the students picked up a frog, eliciting the usual cooing from the group, who all clustered round. Rose was unimpressed. Her eyes swelled and her lip trembled in mock apoplexy. “Put that frog down!”, she declared, turning heads within a five mile radius. “We are botanists. The frog is our enemy.” Duly chastened, the student gently released his prize.

The students present their tributes to Rose for inspection.

The students present their trophies to Rose for inspection.

With some downtime this afternoon I took a stroll through the home gardens in the village adjacent to the forest reserve. As I rambled along, familar small shapes darted through the bananas just out of sight, calling out “Msungu! Msungu!” and the occasional “How are you!”, though too shy to wait for a response.

As I turned to head back, one bolder child stepped out and beckoned me to follow. Approaching a hut just off the trail, a gaggle of children emerged, and all became clear. They had run home to smear their faces with white chalk, and were now excitedly dancing up and down, pointing at themselves and chanting “Msungu! Msungu!” with broad smiles on their faces. These days blacking up is considered terribly offensive. But whiting up? I’m fine with that.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

One of the great nuisances here at the field station are the olive baboons, which prowl the compound in amongst the chalets, waiting to seize any chance to break in and help themselves to whatever foodstuffs they can find. The windows are barred but constant vigilance is essential. We have been warned of many occasions when they have discovered an overlooked entry point and wreaked havoc within.

Returning to my chalet this evening I found, carefully deposited on my doorstep, a partly-gnawed avocado, while a cluster of baboons sat at some remove watching my response. How should I treat this — as a peace offering? A gift? Is reciprocal altruism expected? I stepped over the abandoned fruit, then closed and bolted the door behind me. The avocado has since vanished along with the baboons. I fear that my insult will not go unpunished.

Butterfly ecologist Dr Perpetra Akite demonstrates her unusual collecting technique.

Butterfly ecologist Dr Perpetra Akite demonstrates her unusual collecting technique.